By Jim Ignasher
Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine – July, 2010
The day started out like any other, but before it was over, there would be a story to tell that had all the makings of an old-time western movie; a highway robbery, a shoot-out with the law, and even a citizen’s posse. This forgotten tale has long since faded into the recesses of local history, but it seems worth re-telling. It all began on Farnum Pike near present-day Kane Road on April 20, 1914.
To tell this story properly, the reader needs to know a little background information. The Village of Stillwater once had a large textile mill that burned to the ground in 1984. Between 1914 and 1974 it was owned by the Lister Family, but before that, it was owned by the Centerdale Worsted Company, of North Providence. James Lister, Jr. was part-owner of the Centerdale Worsted Company and served as its treasurer.
On the afternoon of April 20, Mr. Lister and company president, William Mackie, set out from North Providence for Stillwater to deliver the mill payroll.
They traveled by way of Waterman Avenue and Farnum Pike in an open horse-drawn carriage, with a canvas sack containing several thousand dollars resting on the seat between them. As they reached the top of what was referred to in the newspapers as, “Appleby’s Hill”, they encountered an automobile parked along the side of the roadway with nobody inside. Motor vehicles were still somewhat rare in Smithfield in 1914, and as they proceeded past it, both men took note of the four-digit license plate, number 1939, but didn’t recognize the car as belonging to anyone local. It was at this point that five men armed with pistols and rifles jumped up from behind a stone wall and ordered the businessmen to stop.
It is unknown if Lister and Mackie were armed, but even if they were they were out-gunned and had been taken by surprise. As the bandits approached, one holding a shotgun unexpectedly opened fire hitting Lister square in the chest with a slew of lead pellets. The sudden blast startled the horse, which reared up on its hind legs and let out a loud whinny, frightening one of the other bandits into firing his pistol. The bullet missed the horse, but grazed Mackie’s neck. This caused the others to begin shooting, which sent the horse off at full-gallop trying to outrun the fusillade of bullets.
Although seriously wounded, Lister whipped the horse with one hand while holding the reins with the other as hot lead zipped past their heads. There is no doubt that the bandits could have easily pursued and overtaken the two wounded men with their automobile, and why they chose not to is open to speculation. Perhaps they were just as startled by the ugly turn of events as Lister and Mackie, for they took off toward Georgiaville and Esmond instead.
With the car load of bandits literally headed south of the border, Lister and Mackie made for the mill and arrived in short order. As Lister was treated for his wounds, Mackie authorized a reward of $500 for the capture of the bandits, which sent some men scrambling from their work stations to become part of a hastily formed armed posse to set out to collect the bounty. In the meantime word was sent to North Providence authorities to be on the lookout for the armed desperadoes.
The North Providence police officer who took the phone call was Deputy Chief of Police George Hill, who had been on duty at the Town Hall in Centerdale. (This was a different Town Hall than the one used today.) He stepped out into the roadway just in time to see the bandits approaching, and signaled for the driver to stop. As the automobile slowed, the front seat passenger suddenly leaned out and opened fire on the officer! One bullet slammed into Hill’s left shoulder, spun him around, and knocked him to the ground. Before he could recover and return fire, the driver sped off with no regard for the hapless citizens in the street who were sent scrambling for cover.
It was clear that the gang of thugs had no regard for human life and would stop at nothing to get away. Word of the shootings spread quickly, and alarms were transmitted to the Pawtucket and Providence police, who set up roadblocks staffed with shotgun-toting blue-coats fully prepared to dispatch the bandits to the land of milk and honey. Unfortunately, these efforts were for naught because the robbers managed to slip away.
However, the police had at least one clue to work with and that was the auto’s registration number, which was found to belong to a Providence man named Rosetti. Rosetti admitted to owning the car, but claimed he had been forced to participate in the attempted payroll robbery. He related that he had received a telephone call that morning from a man who wanted to rent the car for the day, and when he met the man at an agreed meeting place on Atwells Avenue, he was instructed to go to another location to pick up three others. The five of them then drove to Stillwater where three of the men got out and went into some woods while he waited with the fourth man in the car. After hearing gunshots in the distance, Rosetti claimed the three men returned, and one put a gun to his head and ordered him to drive back to Providence, and to do it “fast!”
Imagine Rosetti’s dismay when the police didn’t believe his story! Despite the fact his tale contradicted accounts related by the victims, Rosetti stuck to his story for nearly three hours before he “suddenly remembered” that after he dropped the four men off in Providence, he had found a rifle in his car that they had left behind. Instead of notifying police, Rosetti felt the best course of action was to hide it in his garage! Police recovered the rifle, and after another hour of questioning, Rosetti remembered that he had also found an overcoat worn by one of the bandits and had hidden that down a sewer. In the pockets of the coat police found bullets and a black mask.
As Rosetti’s memory improved, he gave the name of one of the bandits as De Palma. Investigators went to De Palma’s home and found him in bed claiming to be sick. He denied any knowledge of the whole affair and maintained his innocence even after he was brought to the hospital and identified by Deputy Chief Hill as being in the car.
Rosetti and De Palma, if convicted, were looking at substantial jail time, and probably didn’t feel like serving it alone. It wasn’t long before the names of their cohorts were known and the entire gang was in custody.
Unfortunately, the outcome of the trial is not known. The good news is that all three shooting victims recovered from their wounds, the mill payroll was saved, and an exciting chapter of forgotten local history was thus brought to a close.